The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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It’s remarkable how varied soccer teams’ attitudes towards possession are. Obviously, no team is more deeply committed to possession in all situations than Barcelona, even though that commitment can cost them, as it did in the recent Clasíco, when Real was Possession: A Romancehanded their early goal via an uncharacteristically dumb and easily-intercepted pass from Víctor Valdés. But an occasional error is not going to change the Barça belief that hoofing the ball down the pitch is simply not done, even by the keeper, and even 30 seconds into the match. So after the match Pep Guardiola said, “The perfect image of this game was that after the goal Víctor Valdés continued playing the ball. Real Madrid steam-roller you. Most goalkeepers would boot it. But Víctor kept playing the ball. I prefer us to lose the ball like that but give continuity to our play.” And Xavi added, “The key was not forgetting our philosophy. We don’t know how to play any other way — and Victor was brave.”

About eighteen hours later, I saw quite another tactic employed: in the last half-hour of their match with Sunderland, Blackburn made no attempt to possess the ball. At all. Steve Kean just backed his players against their goal and let Sunderland hammer away, rope-a-dope like. But unfortunately for the Rovers, Sunderland didn’t punch themselves out. They got two goals in the last ten minutes and handed Martin O’Neill his first win with the team.

Kean may have cost his team the game by foregoing possession so completely, but it’s perfectly reasonable tactics to eschew a possession-based game: you can’t keep the ball just by wanting to — there are people on the pitch trying to take it away from you — so if you’re going to hang on to it, you need players who (a) have excellent on-ball skills, (b) have good positional awareness, including awareness of the likely locations of teammates and opponents alike, (c) trust that their teammates will do the right thing when the ball comes to them, and (d) aren’t easily excitable. And above all you need to have players with these virtues all over the pitch. The Barça style works only because the back four are as comfortable with the ball at their feet as other teams’ attacking midfielders. (The problem with defending against Barça is that their other players are even better with the ball, so a high-pressing game is probably the opponents’ best option, if their forwards have the stamina to keep it up for any length of time, which is very rare, so basically when you play Barça you’re screwed . . . but we all know that already. So anyway.)

The beauty of Barcelona’s style has everyone starry-eyed these days: Martin O’Neill says he wants Sunderland to play that way. Sounds great, Martin: all you have to do is to set up a world-class football academy, sign promising players when they’re about eight years old, fend off all attempts to steal them away from Wearside, and when they’re fully mature promote them to the first team. By the time you’re 75 it’ll all be in place! All you’ll need then is to play every match against sides managed by Steve Kean.

I’ve written about some of these matters before, but I think I’m getting a clearer picture of what the game of soccer needs. Not more managers who want to play like Barcelona, but a new generation of tacticians who put seriously creative thought into creating an opportunistic, counter-attacking, possession-indifferent style that can be taught to players who haven’t spent fifteen years together and who may not have the skills necessary to play keep-away for ninety minutes. Players in such a system would need, above all, the persistent alertness to look for opportunities to disrupt possession, the patience to wait for those moments without becoming distracted or over-aggressive, and the boldness to take immediate advantage of any lapse. Rare enough virtues, I suppose; but they can be taught, and can be taught to players who lack intimate understanding of their teammates — as will usually be the case in the ever-shifting world of modern professional sports.

We still don’t know whether the Barcelona model will be sustainable in the long run even by Barcelona — though for at least the medium run the future looks pretty damned bright, considering the way the kiddies played against BATE in their recent Champions League match. Barça’s opponents have to hope that the team has more financial troubles than its bosses have been willing to admit. But in any case, it would be foolish to think that this model can be implemented anywhere else; owners and managers should simply put the thought from their minds, and along with it a tactical approach based fundamentally on possessing the ball. In this one case tactics are tied closely to a system that can’t be replicated. It’s time for everyone else to think different — to coin a phrase — and that means, above all, to think about how to play well, how to be dangerous, when you don’t have the ball all the time.



by Alan Jacobs · December 14, 2011

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